Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Newer Waters

I am someone who is most at rest when I’m moving.

I prefer the beaten path, and this week I have been walking “The Street” in HistoricDeerfield, Massachusetts where Mars and I took part in a Road Scholar Program on “Stimulating Beverages: The History of Tea, Coffee and Chocolate in Early America”.

“Historic Deerfield Inc., founded in 1952, is an outdoor history museum that focuses on the history and culture of the Connecticut River Valley and early New England.  It has a dual mission of educating the public about the lifestyles of the diverse people who lived here long ago and of preserving antique buildings and collections of regional furniture, silver, textiles, and other decorative arts. First settled in 1669, Deerfield is one of the few towns settled by English colonists along the eastern seaboard that retains its original scale and town plan. Visitors are offered guided and self-guided tours of 12 antique houses ranging in age from 1730 to 1850. Eleven of these houses are on their original sites.”

The antique houses, along with an equal number of private residences from the same era, the Deerfield Inn (where we stayed), and Deerfield Academy Prep School (founded in 1799) are arrayed on a one-mile long roadway called “The Street”.  It would be the quintessential place to walk on a crisp, autumn day – wearing a warm sweater while passing by brown and white 18th century New England houses surrounded by white wooden fences, with tall Hydrangeas drying on the vine, and the red and orange leaves suspended overhead and crunching under your feet.   But that would be a few weeks from now.  This week, while prematurely cool, featured lighter weight clothing and green foliage.  Nonetheless…

The Deerfield Inn is located at the midpoint of “The Street”.  In our three days there Mars and I walked twice to each end.  North to visit two homes of former residents  – one a wealthy farmer and entrepreneur, the other an ultimately unhappy British Sympathizing Congregational Minister – and again to see the museum’s collection of American silverware, including communion metalware from various churches in the area.  The southerly route took us to the Flynt Museum for a material culture discussion about how tea addiction and the lack of Colonial self-sufficiency led to revolution; and a reconstruction of a parlor conversation, with tea, on women’s fashions of the day.  Other classes on the respective histories and making of tea, coffee, and chocolate – with tastings – were held in the visitor center across from the Inn.

(click to enlarge)

The sidewalks were largely deserted except for occasional students heading to or from Deerfield Academy – boys in blue blazers, button downs, ties, chinos slacks (or, in two cases, shorts), and all manner of foot ware – girls dressed in the various non-uniform uniforms of teenage girls, or field hockey gear. 

Mars and I also took a side trip along the Channing Blake Footpath to the Deerfield River.  The dirt pathway led through a small working farm where two large pigs, totally uninterested in their visitors, snorted and wallowed in their mud-filled pen and Holstein cows lay on the sun warmed grass – curious enough to tilt an ear and raise their heads, but no more. 

The river itself was at this point in time not much more than a slow moving brook.  Its waters however, along with those of the Connecticut River on the other side of town, rise enough to totally irrigate the land in between making it one of the most fertile farming areas in the northeast.  Colonial farmers fortunate to happen upon this self-sustaining land needed to go no further to make their wealth.  There is however a down side to waterways’ largesse.  In 2011 Hurricane Irene caused flooding into the village itself that put over half of the Deerfield Inn under water and rendered it inoperable for eighteen months.

On our way back we looked to the north where a clear blue sky tried to meet the green land below but our view of their union was blocked by an intervening shock of row on row-on-row corn rising from the fruitful earth.

I took advantage of our early wake-up habits to also walk “The Street” during the pre-dawn hour.  The temperature was in the fifties and the fog, which had accumulated during the overnight, was beginning to disperse.  As I walked by the Academy one of blazer-and-backpack clad teachers bicycled onto the campus balancing on his left leg as his vehicle coasted to a halt.  While from across the street a male prep, identically clad, and a leggy plaid-skirted clad girl entered the grounds from opposite ends, striding determinedly like a haze-bound Alberto Giacometti walking sculpture.

Further on a startlingly white small dog urged its leash-bound walker to slow down.  And up the road a piece a swarthy, wrinkle-faced man in equally wrinkled black clothes stood motionless at the start of the Channing Bake Footpath exhaling his cigarette smoke into the surrounding mist.  Unlike “Field of Dreams” there were, alas, however no ghosts emerging from the haze – unless, that is, they themselves were the vapor returning to the familiar shelter of their homes for another day of reminiscing.

On our drive up to this session Mars and I stopped at the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory& Gardens in nearby South Deerfield to visit their 8,000-square foot glass conservatory filled with hundreds of butterflies, moths and tropical vegetation.  We spent about an hour strolling through the glass house as the brightly colored insects flapped and floated around us – all of them, the attendant explained, intent on maximizing their five day lifespan on earth by feeding and mating to the max.

The population of the Conservatory is largely self-sustaining with butterfly eggs transferred from the in-house tropical plants to their “nursery” for pupation and birth.  Others are however brought in throughout the year from other parts of the world to add variety and improve the population.  Two sets of entry and exit doors plus a bank of mirrors for self-scanning are intended to ensure that no residents inadvertently leave their protective dome

Historic Deerfield while dedicated to preserving and presenting a particular point in time in a particular place, likewise adapts.  Between the Academy and the Inn is “The Brick Church”, the fifth meetinghouse of a congregation dating back to 1673 – the year that the Deerfield settlement was incorporated.  Originally Congregational, it was the literal, and the figurative center of town.  Today it is used by both Unitarians and Congregationalists – a sign, along with the female and non-Caucasian preppies, that even in this bastion of historical preservation, things do change.

And, like all good historians, the Textile Curator eagerly accepted information that I gave him on Sophia Woodhouse – a 19th century bonnet maker and entrepreneur from our town of Wethersfield, Connecticut – someone unknown in Historic Deerfield.

The Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said, "Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers."  I would add – and to those who walk the established road with a good guide and a curious eye.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Recreating History in Our Own Backyard

This has been a good year for sunflowers (aka Helianthus) at our homestead – both the ones that sprang spontaneously from our fallen feeder birdseed, and those that Mars intentionally sowed for the first time this year.

The unplanned ones have been a regular part of our summer landscape ever since we began enticing feathered passers-by to stop awhile and graze at our all natural, all seeds, all-you-can-eat, hanging buffet – which I guess technically makes them planned every year after the first one.
Anyway this year’s crop, as usual, was high in quantity and, as usual, pretty mediocre in quality – at least from my human perspective.  The flowers were small, the stems were short, and the colors (at the height of their glory) ran somewhere between an amazingly drab mustard hue and the very faded sepia tint of very old photographs.  Finches and some sparrows nonetheless seem to find something to devour from within the flower’s head even as their slight weight bent the plant’s anorexic stalks to the ground.  The seeds from whence these plants developed are residents of the lowest level of Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  And the squirrels and birds that subsist on these ovules ecstatically love them just the way they are. 
Mars and I can get all of the sunflower oil and seeds that we consume at our local Trader Joe’s store.  And as much as we get a kick out of the mini sunflower forest that springs up on our front yard each annum, and have no inclination to curtail its future growth, we now have loftier expectations of the Helianthus that appear on our property.   Which is why Mars planted a few of the more decorative seeds behind our meager tomato patch, in the midst of one of our tall perennial beds. 
We were asking a lot – considering where we put them and how much care we would give them.  But hey, just by itself one sunflower is probably more complicated and harder working than all the perennials combined in our laissez-faire landscape.
“The sunflower is a composite flower; several hundred smaller flowers act together to create the illusion of one massive flower. These smaller flowers are referred to as florets, and they create the head -- or brown center -- of the sunflower. The yellow petals of a sunflower are leaves. These leaves act as protection for the brown center of the sunflower during the growing process. The numerous flowers that make up the brown center grow independently of one another. From this center, new sunflower seeds form.” (
And it definitely has more gardening experience than the two of us – beginning in 3,000 BC when the plant was domesticated into a single-headed flower by the Indians of the southwest United States (Arizona and New Mexico). 
“Seed was ground or pounded into flour for cakes, mush or bread. Some tribes mixed the meal with other vegetables such as beans, squash, and corn. The seed was also cracked and eaten for a snack. There are references of squeezing the oil from the seed and using the oil in making bread.” (
All parts of the sunflower were put to use.  The seeds were grown in a variety of colors – black, white, red, and black/white striped – and were used make dyes for textiles and body painting.  The oil was used medicinally and in baking. And the dried stalk served as a building material.
Spanish explorers brought the plant to Europe in the 1500s. “The plant was initially used as an ornamental, but by 1769 literature mentions sunflower cultivated by oil production. By 1830, the manufacture of sunflower oil was done on a commercial scale. The Russian Orthodox Church increased its popularity by forbidding most oil foods from being consumed during Lent. However, sunflower was not on the prohibited list and therefore gained in immediate popularity as a food.   By the early 19th century, Russian farmers were growing over 2 million acres of sunflower.”
In the late 1800s Russian immigrants brought the sunflower back to the United States where seed companies began advertising “Mammoth Russian” sunflowers in their catalogs.  (In our hometown of Wethersfield, CT Comstock-Ferre Seeds (now a part of Baker’s Creek) offers them.)
Mars and I are not sure what variety we planted, or from where they came.  (It most likely was a thank you gift from one of the non-profits that we support.)  In any event we planted them when we put in the tomatoes – Memorial Day weekend as required by law in New England – and around Labor Day three yellow-headed eight-footers towered over the tomatoes and their perennial playmates along the south side of our garage.  A fourth one is slightly shorter and requires a little help from a plastic stake and some Velcro in order to stand erect.  But all of them have faces that are as close to the Platonic ideal of sunflower beauty as is humanly possible.
Plus the bees love them – as do Mars and I.  Them, walking delicately from stamen to stamen, and then flying off with pollen-laden legs to return again the next day. 
Us from a distance, in a more visual way.
With help from our feathered diners Mars and I have unwittingly created a life-sized diorama of Helianthus history right in our own backyard.
How cool is that?